Rest in Power: Sadie Roberts-Joseph, the Civil Rights “Queen Who Walked Among Us”

On the morning of July 12, 75-year-old Sadie Roberts-Joseph, longtime civil and human rights activist in Baton Rouge, drove in her black-bumpered, white car to her sister’s house to bake cornbread. Her 11 a.m. visit would be the last known time anyone had seen her alive.

“The bread is still there,” said Beatrice Johnson, her sister. “She never came back to get it.”

Roberts-Joseph—best known for being the founder of Community Against Drugs and Violence (CADAV) and of the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African-American Museum—was found dead in the trunk of her own car just over three miles from her home in what the local coroner determined was a homicide by “traumatic asphyxiation.” The suspect is Ronn Jermaine Bell, 38, her tenant who owed her $1,200 in rent.

(Rani Gregory Whitfield)

News of her death shocked the local community, prompting a vigil late Tuesday and sparking a number of grieving responses from both citizens and prominent local figures she had met and worked with in her many ventures—like Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis of Baton Rouge’s sixth district.

“My heart is aching,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I have known Ms. Sadie for over 30 years. A wonderful sweet and quiet soul. She leaves her footprint on the entire parish and far beyond.”

Indeed, the activist had fought for and accomplished a great deal for Baton Rouge, where she had moved with her family from Mississippi in her earlier years. 

Born in 1944, Roberts-Joseph was one of 11 siblings. She pursued education and speech pathology and was heavily involved in the local black community for decades, organizing events like the annual Juneteenth festival—a holiday commemorating the last slaves learning of their independence nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed—and working as a certified respiratory therapy technician.

In 1994, Roberts-Joseph co-founded CADAV, a local civic organization designed for youth, and organized local events to educate and promote African-American causes in her community and in the local government. In pursuit of that mission, she founded the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African-American Museum in 2001—now the Baton Rouge African-American History Museum—to educate students and provide the history of Baton Rouge and Louisiana in the context of the black experience. She also organized the annual Veterans Day celebrations that honored those of all races who fought in the Civil War.

Roberts-Joseph was an “icon and Legend,” as CADAV wrote on Facebook, and her deep engagement with her community and passion did not go unnoticed by either the locals she had talked to everyday or representatives and public figures that worked alongside her.

Upon her death, social media was overcome by videos and photos of her talking with people of her local community, educating students and, generally, fighting for what she believed in: justice.

Raymond A. Jetson, a former pastor in Baton Rouge and president of Metromorphosis, a nonprofit dedicated to changing communities through local community engagement, posted lyrics from the 1974 song “Sadie” by the Spinners in honor of the late activist.

“Oh Sadie (Oh Sadie…) / Don’t you know we love you (she’ll love us all in a special way) / Sweet Sadie (well, well, well) / Place no one above you,” he posted. “The lyrics above from the soundtrack of my life [and] have been looping in my head nonstop. Sadie Roberts-Joseph was always kind and encouraging to me. I will forever recall her grace, dignity and passion for her people. Her smile came from the depths of her spirit and always lifted your being. My prayers are with her family.”

The organization Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of congregations and community-based organizations with whom Roberts-Joseph had worked with in her efforts for community activism, also paid tribute. 

“While her death is a tragedy, it would be an even greater injustice to let her death overshadow her tremendous life that left behind [a] legacy of activism and Black pride that endeared her to the Baton Rouge community,” they wrote. “She was what was right about Baton Rouge and the magnitude of her loss to our whole community is a testament to that.”

Even in the face of the hyperpolarization and animosity in the realm of race, Roberts-Joseph kept fighting for equality and justice.

“When I try to do something, God always opens doors,” she told The Advocate in 2016, “and I try to do the very best that I can, not necessarily for me but particularly to help inspire and educate the younger generation. I find gratification that we are coming together and realizing our differences are not as great as our commonalities.”

Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph: Rest in power.

About

Willow Taylor Chiang Yang is a current summer intern for Ms. Magazine, which perhaps gives an idea of her feminist leanings. In addition to being an outspoken women's rights advocate and a proud, politic-loving Asian American, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, her grade's Student Council representative and a devotee of convoluted sentence structure. She was also a Senior Project Editor for the Since Parkland Project, and appeared on ABC7's Midday Live.